Elderly parents a special kind of patient for Boston ophthalmologist
By Mary Hierholzer | January 13, 2016, 6:44 EST
When Elizabeth Daher moved next door to her ailing parents in Weston, Massachusetts, her time was consumed by nighttime trips up and down the hill between their homes, ambulance calls, and hospital visits. Yet to Daher, caring for the elderly man and woman who dedicated their own lives to helping others was a matter of course.
Over the years, Daher noticed that her parents were not treated as valued individuals in the medical world. Instead, she found that elderly patients’ medical records served as mere warnings for insurance companies, and their emergencies as simple moneymaking opportunities for assisted living homes.
Before her father, Saleh Jorge Daher, passed away at the age of 90 last year, it was not unusual for Daher to spend hours with him in waiting rooms watching younger patients whiz past him for treatment. One of Elizabeth’s friends was even told by a doctor treating her elderly mother, “Maybe it’s time to let Mommy fly.”
To a hospital, the situation might have read “practical.” But to a daughter, it read “expendable.”
Daher is convinced that family is the core value of life, worth every effort and dollar. In the Daher home, not a day goes by that the family does not celebrate life in some capacity. When Saleh Daher turned 90 in March of 2014, family and friends gathered in a joyful celebration. His granddaughters sang all of his favorite songs, a fitting tribute to his operatic singing voice and piano skills.
Daher’s parents, Elizabeth and Saleh, raised her three siblings and her with a strong sense that family is the highest priority. It was a philosophy that mattered deeply to the couple, who both took on leadership roles in their families during their youth in Brazil.
When Elizabeth was young, her father left his sick wife with four girls and three boys in the small town of Sao Gotardo. As the eldest, Elizabeth became the head of her family. Similarly, Saleh took charge of his family when his gambling father refused to provide. Despite setbacks, Saleh graduated at the top of his class from Ouro Preto, the prominent engineering school in Brazil. Elizabeth worked two jobs while attending college and earning a teaching degree.
In 1966, Saleh, Elizabeth, and their four children left Brazil for Boston, where Saleh earned an engineering degree from MIT and a mathematics Ph.D. from Northeastern University. Daher recalls that it was a challenging transition for the family as her mother learned English and her father worked to provide a living. But Daher said that her parents never neglected their children in the process.
“They wanted to establish a strong home for themselves and for their children,” she said. The result of their hard work was that two children became doctors and two became engineers at MIT.
Because Daher was raised by such dedicated parents, she and her husband Peter were determined to arrange proper care for them when it became necessary. When their care required more attention, Daher made the self-sacrificing decision to reduce her own work as an ophthalmologist to only part-time. In a similar way, many grown children decide to put their careers on hold while they care for their elderly parents at home.
Nevertheless, Daher insists that the opportunity to provide personal care comfortably at home is well worth the late-night trips to her parents’ home and the long hours in waiting rooms.
“I am in a hard position because I don’t want to completely give up my work,” she said. “I have a child who’s 11, and I had two parents who required a lot of help. But there had to be a better way than going to an emergency room and waiting while he’s lying there in extreme pain, waiting hours before somebody could come and assist him.”
Daher added, “Doctors were trained to say, ‘You’re doing him a benefit if you don’t treat him and let him die,’ but they were going to rob another five or so years of his life.”
The utilitarian approach of the medical community was particularly dismaying. “Some people seem to get quick care more easily than an older person does, because maybe they’re younger or ‘more valuable’ in other ways… [Hospitals] almost see it as immoral to spend money on someone who only has five years left,” Daher said.
On one occasion, Daher made several ambulance calls for Saleh, and the Council on Aging responded by recommending that she simply put him into hospice. However, when her father spent time in a rehabilitation home, Daher was perturbed by their attitude. When he experienced a medical emergency and Daher attempted to take him to the hospital for care, the home repeatedly advised her not to call 911. Later, she learned that the home would only make money if her father passed away onsite.
In another instance, Daher suspected that her father had experienced a pulmonary embolism, but he was denied hospital testing. It was only after Daher consulted her mother’s cardiologist, who insisted the tests be performed, that the pulmonary embolism was confirmed. “I am convinced it took five years off of his life,” Daher said. “… But his value to me doesn’t count in the legal world.”
Daher has concluded that it is the joyful moments, whether learning to read on her father’s lap as a small child or celebrating his 90th birthday, that best combat the callous flippancy of healthcare workers toward the value of his life. For this reason, the Daher home continues to have frequent celebrations, giving a warm welcome to family, friends, and acquaintances alike.
“You need to take time to be family,” Daher said. “Not just once or twice a year, but more frequently. We need to make that important so that people want to come together.”